Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dispatch from Alsace

Greetings from Europe. I've been seeing a ton of World War II battlegrounds and fortifications, and reading a lot about the fall of France in 1940. I will be putting up observations, piece by piece, but for now I'll leave you with a quick thought:

If you want to know where Paul Virilio is coming from with all his talk about speed and warfare, read Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat. Bloch was an influential historian, one of the guys who developed the Annales style of long-duration social history. (His most famous work investigated the folk belief that the touch of the French King could cure scrofula--basically the first historical anthropology.) He was also a reservist mobilized into staff work during the second World War. He witnessed firsthand the failure of the French general staff to grasp the increased speed of land warfare, but more importantly the increased tempo of operations that came with radio. Every time they tried to fall back and establish a defensive line, the germans had raced beyond it. They were able to identify opportunities and support breakthroughs far faster than any of the pre-war planning had anticipated. The defeat was strange, surprising, and demoralizing, especially since germany had no real advantage in men or material.

Defeats like those are surprising, and as Claude Shannon would have you know, surprises are always informative.

 Strange Defeat was composed after Bloch was demobilized, while he was working with the resistance. Sadly, he didn't live to see its publication--the Nazis shot him a few weeks after D-Day. It's a short, interesting book, and well worth the read.